Screening Room

Screening Room

Shut Up and Dance: Becoming Jane and Hairspray Evoke a Long Movie Tradition

By Frank Pittman

November/December 2007

For much of the last century, the most memorable moments in movies (and maybe in life itself) took place as people danced across the screen, alone or en masse, cheek to cheek or butt to butt, and finally lips to lips. The great movie musicals that still live in memory were sometimes overpopulated spectaculars, sometimes lowbrow operettas, but mostly they were love stories about couples who, although they might at first speak different languages, eventually managed to come together, bypass the messy business of talking and, instead, dance off in a pas de deux of love.

Musical romances, with Fred and Ginger, or Gene and Cyd, or even just Judy and Mickey, kept a couple of generations of moviegoers dreaming of falling in love on the dance floor. Filled with convoluted plots, great costumes, and kinetic excitement, they usually had little connection to reality. But they were beloved, and afforded due respect by the movie industry. From 1951 to 1968, half the Oscar winners were musicals. Then, as the 1970s plodded on their bounceless way, the movie musical as we knew it abruptly vanished. One explanation was simply that dancing in the movies was a stand-in for sex, and when sex became more explicit after the late '60s, movie dancing ceased to be a necessary surrogate. Last summer, however, a few films resurrected dancing as a mating ritual that permits couples to connect without leaving their clothes on the dance floor, reminding us once again of the traditional…

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